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October 31st, 2008 By Jason Gargano | Movies |

Friday Movie Roundup: Big-Named Disappointments

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Our largely lackluster fall movie season trudges on with five more tepidly received efforts despite the presence of some big-named veteran directors like Clint Eastwood, Barry Levinson, Kevin Smith and the newly single Guy Ritchie.

Of course, each has left me disappointed (or worse) in recent years: Eastwood continues to tread deeper into heavy-handed waters with each release since Mystic River (though Letters from Iwo Jima had its moments); I gave up long ago on Levinson; Ritchie’s stylish Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels now looks like a highly entertaining fluke; and Smith’s new Zack and Miri Make a Porno continues the self-styled amateur auteur’s post-Chasing Amy losing streak. (Read tt stern-enzi's interview with Smith here.)

Yet all is not lost. The coming weeks promise such anticipated fare as Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (which gets more mind-fuckingly fascinating the more I think about it), Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Sundance-winning doc Trouble the Water and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. And don’t forget Quantum of Solace, the latest Bond flick featuring franchise-resuscitating savior Daniel Craig.

The most curious movie offering this week is a free screening of avant-garde master Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death at Art Damage Lodge in Northside. Originally shot between 1957 and 1959, Jacobs’ labyrinthine look at America’s tendency toward racial strife, crass commercialization and soul-numbing conformity has been updated numerous times over the years, culminating in the current six-and-a-half-hour version to be shown in two parts over two nights (8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday).

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Jacobs’ epic political rumination is the perfect way to usher in the era of Obama … and the death of corrosive, unabashedly divisive conservatism.


OPENING FILMS:

CHANGELING — Clint Eastwood’s latest film, set in the corrupt Los Angeles of the Roaring 1920s, is based on a true story so horrifically weird that it would be a challenge for anyone to figure out how to smoothly, effectively tell it. Eastwood has his problems, although the material is so unusual that the film holds interest more often than not. (Read full-length review here.) — Steven Rosen (Rated R.) Grade: C

THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY — Veteran television producer Mickey Liddell makes his feature directorial debut with the latest supernatural horror/thriller to hit theaters baring an oxymoronic PG-13 rating. If this is anything like the similarly rated genre dud Prom Night — probably the biggest waste of celluloid this year — count me out. What happened to good, old-fashioned B-movie trash? Stars Haley Bennent and Gossip Girls stud Chace Crawford. — Jason Gargano (Rated PG-13.) Not screened for review.

ROCKNROLLA — For all of its cool ’60s Garage Rock and Clash-song soundtrack, writer/director Guy Ritchie’s latest ode to John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday is a discombobulated and sluggish succession of gritty suspense set pieces with only vaguely interesting characters. Gerard Butler plays petty criminal One Two to his partner Mumbles (Idris Elba), both of whom are engaged in some dicey business regarding a property, a large sum of cash and a certain stolen painting. Tom Wilkinson steals the show as crime-lord Lenny Cole who is busy stealing money hand-over-fist from Russian billionaire Uri Obamavich (Karel Roden) with the help of his flirty-but-thorny accountant Stella (Thandie Newton). The MacGuffin painting — we never get to see it — points to Lenny Cole’s Rock star stepson Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), who represents the film’s title as a trust-fund-junkie thug who fancies himself a real “RocknRolla.” Jeremy Piven and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges visit the movie as if they accidentally walked onto the wrong soundstage along with several other incidental character actors hamming it up. — Cole Smithey (Rated R.) Grade: C

WHAT JUST HAPPENED — Ben (Robert DeNiro) is a fading movie producer who must juggle professional crises like a Sean Penn vehicle stuck in editing hell and a potential shutdown of a Bruce Willis project because the star has arrived on set with a mountain-man beard and too much flab around the middle, while also dealing with personal dramas between an ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) and an deteriorating relationship with a teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart) from another broken marriage. One could argue that there’s too much in turnaround in this Barry Levinson insider piece that plays less like The Player than a middle-aged spin on Entourage. But it strains credibility not so much due to the overbooking of dramas — that’s life, when its all said and done. The heart of the problem here is one of time. There’s a ticking-clock feel to the handling of the professional and personal dilemmas, but Levinson fails to make time lead to greater tension. Much of the narrative has a sense of slackness. Ben jumps from one frying pan to the next without a heightened degree of anxiety, and other characters, like Willis’ agent (John Turturro) and a hardened studio executive (Catherine Keener), drift in and out of the focus without sufficiently turning the heat up. DeNiro goes a long way toward making Ben a fairly sympathetic character, but What Just Happened leaves no lingering impression. — tt stern-enzi (Rated R.) Grade: C-

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO — Kevin Smith hasn't matured enough to actually make a good comedy, but he has accrued enough casting wisdom to elevate his latest homegrown material with the effervescent Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks. Smith’s slacker-inspired script follows childhood-pals-turned-roommates Zack (Rogan) and Miri (Banks) whose Pittsburgh existence has fallen below the poverty line of having heat and running water. Zack gets a bright idea for the pair to make a porno movie with some financial help from his coffee-shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson), and soon the team is using their workplace as a nighttime movie set. Vulgarities abound and the spotty humor comes and goes like sweat drops on a sauna floor. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) and Justin Long (who plays a California-bred porn actor) steal their scenes as a gay couple, but it’s Rogan and Banks as would-be lovers that keeps the movie watchable. — CS (Rated R.) Grade: C


 
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